Lee Wolverton: Newspapers suffered as advert revenues declined | Opinion
The fortunes of the newspapers and those of the communities in which they have long resided have run parallel to one another, as has that of the country’s economic and visceral vicissitudes.
That story has changed in the last 15 years as newspapers began melodramatically borrowing from writer Edward Raymer, a descent into darkness. Industry-wide sales have more than halved since 2006. Advertising was particularly affected.
Our critics were legion for a long time, but seem to have multiplied in proportion to our financial suffering. Everyone is a critic when you lose your mojo. Without exception, the editors hear of the heyday of the newsrooms they are now running. People remember eras when the size of any particular paper was supposedly undisputed. Now longtime editors lament the same complaints as they watch as once mighty titans of the industry wither. “That used to be a great newspaper …” Some of these papers have completely disappeared. Others will surely follow.
One of the troubles of the moment is that everyone seems to know everything, including all the reasons newspapers have stumbled into this state. The loudest chorus is that they’re too damn liberal. Other armchair experts trot out banalities. Newspapers are the makers of buggy whips in the age of flammable engines. You haven’t gotten used to the internet. Still others listen to a bygone heyday when all editors were brilliant and every reporter was the second coming of Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein. The local paper fell apart when this or that editor walked out the door. Now take a look at it.
Few people seem interested in facts when social media gives everyone a voice, no matter how high-pitched or regardless of the functioning intellect. But those anti-Diluvian enough to believe facts matter might consider these:
The print run has been in free fall for a long time, but not in the digital audience. The total weekday circulation of all U.S. newspapers fell from a high of 63.3 million in 1984 to 28.6 million in 2018. Latest figures are not available, but in 2015 the newspapers’ online audiences reached the largest trading group in the industry, now known as the News Media Alliance, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
These statistics show that newspapers are attracting more, not fewer, people to their jobs, even if newsroom employment has been cut in half since 2009.
The online readership for newspapers has not translated into profitability. According to the Pew Research Center, advertising revenue across the industry fell from nearly $ 50 billion in 2005 to $ 14.3 billion in 2018. Print advertising was decimated, falling from $ 47.4 billion to around $ 12.5 billion over the same period.
As digital audiences grew, digital advertising couldn’t keep up, surpassing $ 4 billion by 2018, down from $ 2 billion in 2005. In the same year, Google nearly doubled its total revenue to $ 6.1 billion. Another player in the digital advertising market, Facebook, was still in its infancy. Today, these two together bring in more than $ 200 billion annually. According to Borrell Associates and eMarketer, they gobble up 77% of the local digital ad market compared to 58% nationally. This is suffocating for local news organizations. Thousands of them are looking for junk. There isn’t enough for everyone to survive.
Terry Kroeger, the former CEO of BH Media, my former employer, told the Wall Street Journal in 2019: “You can’t help but admire Google’s business model. You have almost no content creation cost, but you can turn around and sell the lion’s share of the advertising. “
HD Media, my current employer, has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google and Facebook. Publishers of 125 newspapers in 11 states announced Monday that they had sued or are planning to do the same. The Daily Mail, the London newspaper that bought the domain name of the former Charleston Daily Mail, filed a lawsuit the following day.
This would be what another writer, Timothy Egan, would describe as the worst difficult times for our industry. Even so, we are confident that our best days are ahead of us. Like our state and its people, we are strong, proud and resilient. We are more hardened by adversity than intimidated by it.
So stand with us. Give us hell if we deserve it. Hold us accountable and demand that we hold people accountable in public office. It is still our job and we believe in it. Insist and expect us to be vigilant in fulfilling the role of public watchdogs in our communities, providing a sense of the place we all call home. But support us and newspapers and journalists across the state and across America.
Just as we need people to clean and monitor our streets, we need journalists who diligently cover our cities and states and show us the rights and injustices not of Washington but of our hometowns and West Virginia. Who will do it if journalists don’t? And if not, what will happen to this place?
It’s not just about the future of this and other newspapers. It is the future of our cities, our state and our country.
Lee Wolverton is the Vice President of News and Executive Editor of HD Media.